State Opening, with the Queen’s Speech at its centre, is the key ceremonial and constitutional event at the start of a new session of Parliament.
The Queen’s Speech is the central event in the State Opening of Parliament. This occasion marks the opening of a new session of Parliament.
A new parliamentary session is started:
- at the start of a new Parliament after a general election (as on 17 December 2019); and
- during a single Parliament after a prorogation (as on 14 October 2019).
If the new session is starting during a Parliament, after only a prorogation, the Queen’s Speech takes place on the first day of the new session (as on 14 October 2019).
If the new session is also the start of a new Parliament, after a general election, the Queen’s Speech and State Opening take place a few days after the first day of the new session. This is because time is needed at the start of a Parliament for the new House of Commons to elect its Speaker, which must take place before the Queen’s Speech; and for the swearing-in of all Members of both Houses. This could remain unfinished when the Queen’s Speech takes place, but for the vast majority of MPs and Peers it is normally completed before it.
In any session, neither House can conduct any normal public business before the Queen’s Speech takes place.
The date for the Queen’s Speech is set by the government. If necessary, the date could be changed until quite late, although this would be unusual. The main constraints on the date of the Queen’s Speech are the Queen’s diary commitments, and the security and other practical arrangements that need to be put in place for the day around the Palace of Westminster.
On the appointed day, the Queen arrives at Sovereign’s Entrance, at the House of Lords end of the Palace of Westminster, under Victoria Tower. She proceeds via the Robing Room and Royal Gallery to take her place on the Throne in the House of Lords. Black Rod is then despatched to summon the House of Commons to come to the House of Lords to attend Her Majesty.
Black Rod: the Royal official in the House of Lords with responsibilities for order, the residual Royal estate and ceremonial occasions.
When Black Rod arrives at the House of Commons Chamber, the door is shut in front of her, obliging her to strike it three times with her staff to gain entry. By tradition, this is a reminder of the Commons’ independence, dating back to the Civil War. Once admitted, Black Rod passes on the Queen’s request that the Commons attend her in the Lords. MPs – led by the Speaker – then walk from the House of Commons across Central Lobby and into the House of Lords. In front of the Members of both Houses, the Queen then reads the Speech. Afterwards, MPs return to their own Chamber, the Queen leaves the Lords, and both Houses can get down to the first real business of the session.
Possibilities for lesser ceremonial
There are several ways in which a State Opening might involve a lesser level of ceremony than normal:
- The Queen might not wear the Imperial State Crown. She did not do so for either of the State Openings in 2019, for example. This is purely a practical decision, in reflection of the physical weight of the Crown. If the Crown is not worn, it is carried ahead of the Queen. (The Crown is also not worn if the monarch has not yet been crowned, as occurred at the State Openings in 1936 and 1952.)
- The Queen might wear ordinary clothes rather than the Robe of State. She was ‘dressed-down’ in this way for the State Openings of November 1939 (during World War II) and March 1974, June 2017 and December 2019, when early general elections helped to ensure that there was insufficient time to prepare for a full-scale State Opening.
- The Queen might travel to Parliament by car, rather than in a horse-drawn carriage, as she did, again, in March 1974, June 2017 and December 2019.
- The Queen might not attend in person. This occurred in 1959 and 1963, when she was pregnant. In this case, the Speech is read by one of the Lords Commissioners (a group of Peers who act in Parliament on behalf of the Queen when she is not present in person).
This section was updated on 27 December 2019.
The Queen’s Speech at the start of a new parliamentary session is written by the government for the Queen to read out. It is primarily a vehicle for the government to set out its legislative programme for the new session.
The Speech normally identifies major pieces of primary legislation – that is, bills – that the government plans to publish or introduce to Parliament in the new session. The Speech also typically provides a general presentation of the government’s main policy objectives and priorities, in foreign as well as domestic affairs. It may include an announcement of any forthcoming State Visits.
There is no requirement that in any session the government can only introduce bills that were included in the Queen’s Speech. In procedural terms, government bills that were included in the Queen’s Speech are treated no differently from government bills that were not.
After the House of Commons has returned to its Chamber following the Queen’s Speech, the Speaker first makes a statement about the “duties and responsibilities of Members” of the House. The Speaker may well refer to the Code of Conduct for MPs.
Before the start of their debates on the Queen’s Speech, each House gives a symbolic 1st Reading to a bill which was not included in the Queen’s Speech. The bill is not published or debated. It is ordered to be read a 2nd time, but no date is appointed for 2nd Reading. The process takes only a few seconds. The process is a formality, but it is undertaken in order to make the constitutional point that the House is able to consider business of its own choice, and not just business that was outlined in the Queen’s Speech. The first known occasion when the House of Commons gave a bill a 1st Reading before considering any other business was in 1558.
The bills involved in this process, one each in the Commons and Lords, are always the same each time:
- In the Commons, the bill concerned is the Outlawries Bill. A bill with this title was first presented in 1727, since when it has been generally accepted that it should not progress as a normal bill. The Outlawries Bill historically provided for the more ‘effectual preventing’ of ‘clandestine outlawries’ – that is, the declaration of someone as an outlaw without due process.
- In the House of Lords, the bill given a symbolic 1st Reading is the Select Vestries Bill. This is a remnant of the regular debates that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries on the reform of select vestries. Vestries were a form of local government based on church parish boundaries which had the church vestry as their meeting place. The ‘select’ element refers to the fact that property restrictions limited those entitled to vote in these vestries to only a few ‘select’ people. Reform of select vestries was thus an important aspect of the debate about extending the franchise and reducing the power of the Crown and executive. As the House of Lords historically comprised powerful landowners and Bishops, the Select Vestries Bill came to symbolise the need for Members to act in the national interest rather than self-interest.
Each House must respond to the Queen’s Speech. This response takes the form of a Humble Address, in which the House concerned addresses the Queen directly, to thank her for the Speech.
In each House, a debate takes place on the motion that the Humble Address be presented to the Queen. The Queen’s Speech debate is thus officially the ‘Debate on the Address’. The motion is amendable, and its debate allows a wide-ranging debate on virtually any aspect of government policy.
What are the timings for the Queen’s Speech debate?
The debate on the Address is government business. The government thus decides, each time, on the number and timing of parliamentary days to allocate to it. The government does not need to secure either House’s agreement to a business motion to schedule the Queen’s Speech debate.
In both Houses, the debate on the Address normally starts on the day of the Queen’s Speech. The debate normally lasts five or six sitting days in total. (The last four House of Commons debates on the Address, in 2015, 2016, 2017 and October 2019, each lasted six days.) The House of Lords’ debate is sometimes a day shorter than the Commons’.
The debate is normally held on successive sitting days. However, there is no requirement to this effect – after the first day of the debate, the government may interrupt it in favour of days on which only non-Queen’s Speech business is taken, and then resume it. The government may also vary its initially-announced plans for the debate schedule. Both the interruption of the debate and changes to its initial schedule were seen in the case of the October 2019 Queen’s Speech. The House of Commons’ debate on the December 2019 Queen’s Speech was also again interrupted for Brexit business.
Can the House of Commons consider other business on days on which it is debating the Queen’s Speech?
With respect to other business that may be taken in the House of Commons Chamber before the conclusion of the debate on the Address, there is a distinction between the first and subsequent days.
On the first day of the debate, there can be no Urgent Questions nor applications for emergency debates under Standing Order No. 24.
Otherwise, public business in the Chamber can carry on as normal during the debate on the Address. The government would normally schedule the debate on the Address rather than other business, but it may give priority to other business instead.
The government determines the day on which the normal daily oral questions to ministers re-start (including Prime Minister’s Questions).
There are no sittings in Westminster Hall until after the Queen’s Speech debate in the Chamber is concluded.
How is the Queen’s Speech debate organised?
Although the debate on the Address is government business, in neither House is the motion moved by a minister. Instead, the motion is moved and seconded by government backbenchers, picked by the government. This is the only occasion in the UK Parliament on which a motion is seconded.
In the House of Commons, the speeches by the proposer and seconder at the start of the debate are followed by those of the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister, the leader of the second-largest opposition party, and then other Members.
This first day of the House of Commons’ debate on the Address is a general one. Subsequent days are themed, with the subjects usually announced by the Speaker at the start of the debate.
In the House of Lords, the first day of the Queen’s Speech debate consists only of the speeches by the mover and seconder of the motion. Subsequent days are themed, not necessarily according to the same topics as in the Commons.
What votes are held at the end of the Queen’s Speech debate?
The House of Lords normally agrees its Queen’s Speech debate motion without amendment or dissent.
By contrast, the House of Commons normally votes on the government motion in response to the Queen’s Speech.
In addition, under Standing Order No. 33(1), the Speaker may select up to four amendments to the motion for debate and decision. Of these, one may be moved on the penultimate day of debate, and up to three on the final day. Usually, the amendment moved on the penultimate day and one of those moved on the final day are tabled by the Leader of the Opposition.
The motion on the Address was last amended in 2016, when the government accepted an amendment tabled by its own backbenchers regretting that the Queen’s Speech had not included “a bill to protect the National Health Service from the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership”.
This section was updated on 27 December 2019.